The Bear Woman

One day when out hunting, the man came on a patch of lily roots. On his return home he said to his wife, “I saw a fine patch of large lilies. Tomorrow morning we shall move there and stay for a few days, so that you can dig them.”

They set up a lodge near the place. And on the following morning early, on his way to hunt, he showed his wife the place and left her there to dig.

In the afternoon a large grizzly bear appeared at the place. The woman was intent on her work and did not notice the bear until he was close to her. He said to her, “I want you to be my wife.”

She agreed, for she knew he would kill her if she refused. He took her on his back and carried her to his house.

Towards evening the hunter returned carrying a load of deer meat. His wife was not there. He thought, “She is late and will come soon.”

He roasted meat for both of them. He ate, and then took his bow and arrows and went in search of his wife. He saw where she had been digging roots. He called, but received no answer. It grew dark, and he returned to his camp. He could not sleep. At daybreak he went out again. He saw the tracks of the grizzly bear going away, but no tracks of his wife leaving the spot. He thought she might have gone to his parents’ camp, or the bear might have killed her, but he saw neither her tracks nor signs of a struggle with the bear.

He went to the camp. His father told him that she had not arrived. He related what he had seen, and his father said, “The grizzly bear has not killed her. He has married her.”

The man could neither sleep nor eat. At last the fourth night he slept, for he was very tired.

His wife appeared to him in a dream and said, “The grizzly has taken me.” She told him where the bear’s house was. She said, “Every morning at daybreak he takes me to dig roots at a certain place. If you are strong, you can kill him; but he is very fierce and endowed with magic power. You must fix your arrows as I direct you, and sit where I tell you. I have prepared a hiding place for you, where you may sit on a boulder. Prepare medicine to wash me with, for otherwise, when the bear dies, I shall die too through his power. If he kills you, I shall kill myself. Get young fir-tops and kon-lps [veratrum californicum, durand], and soak them in water. With these, you must rub me. Prepare one arrow by rubbing it with the fat of snakes, and the other arrow anoint with rattlesnake poison. Sit down on the rock in the place that I have prepared; and on the fourth morning, when I bring the bear past close to the rock, shoot him in the throat.”

The hunter prepared everything as directed. He made two new arrows with detachable foreshafts. He made them very carefully, and put good stone heads on them. He searched for snakes, and anointed the foreshafts of his arrows and the points. Early in the morning he was at the place indicated.

The grizzly bear’s house was a cave in a cliff, and at daybreak the man saw the smoke from his fire coming out through a hole in the top of the cliff. Soon he saw his wife and the bear emerge from the entrance. Her face was painted, and she carried her root digger. She dug roots, and the bear gathered them.

The man returned home and told what he had seen to his father, who said, “I have a strong guardian spirit, and I shall protect you. Do not be afraid. Act according the directions your wife has given to you in your dream, and kill the bear.”

On the fourth morning at daybreak he was sitting on the rock. His wife and the bear drew near. She was digging in circles, and the grizzly bear followed her. When she made the fourth circle, she passed quite close to the rock.

He aimed an arrow at his wife, and she cried, “Husbands never kill their wives!” He lowered his bow and laughed.

The bear stood up and was angry. He abused the woman, calling her bad names. Just then he was close to the rock. The hunter spoke to him, and the bear turned to look at the hunter, who shot him right in the throat. The grizzly bear tried to pull out the arrow, but could remove only the shaft. He rushed at the hunter, but could not reach him. The hunter shot his second arrow with such great force that the shaft fell off. The bear fell over and died.

Then his wife swooned, and would have died through the bear’s power, had not her husband rubbed her with fir-tops and veratrum.

She revived and stood up. She said, “I warn you not to have connection with me. The influence of the bear is still over me. Build a lodge of fir brush for me some distance away from the people. Let your sisters feed me, and wash me with fir and veratrum leaves. You may speak to me from a distance. Next spring, when the snow is almost gone, I shall be your wife again.”

In the spring she washed at a stream, using hot water, and her sisters-in-law rubbed her with fir boughs. The hunter also washed. Then she went into his lodge, and lived with him as before.


Source: Franz Boas, Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes = Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, vol. 11 (Lancaster and New York: American Folk-Lore Society, 1917), pp. 90-92.

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